So you’re heading to a rental house to pick up and prep a camera package, but aren’t quite sure what you’re supposed to actually do for a prep? Well, in a phrase: check everything.
Before heading into production, a proper camera prep is crucially important to make sure your camera package and all of its accessories are in working condition. Without a camera prep, you risk these issues manifesting themselves on set – often at the worst of times.
When you’re doing a prep, it’s important to test, mount, and check anything and everything that will go on, under, or near the camera during a shoot. A camera prep done right is exhaustive, but the reward is a feeling of reassurance as you head into production confident that your camera package is complete and in good working condition.
That attitude of completeness is echoed by David Elkins in the video above when he says, “The one item you don’t check during prep will inevitably be the one that fails during production.”
And Elkins should know – he’s the author of The Camera Assistant’s Manual, a wonderfully detailed book about how to be a camera assistant. The video – just as detailed as his book – walks you through his camera prep method when checking out a basic camera package.
It’s a must-watch for all camera assistants.
Note: the password for the Vimeo version of the video is camprepvid
When Prepping a Digital Camera…
Though Elkins briefly mentions digital cameras in the intro, the bulk of the video focuses on prepping a film camera, so I want to add a few digital-specific tasks you should do during your camera prep:
Settings and Menu Preferences
The first thing you should do is go into the menus and set the camera’s settings. This includes:
- Recording resolution
- Bitrate / Compression
- Framerate (e.g. 25 or 24 or 23.98)
- Aspect ratio
- Color space
- Frame guides
- And many more options…
What I like to do is go through every single option on every single menu page and confirm it’s what I want it to be. It sounds tedious, but it’s better to do that then find out halfway through Day 1 that you had been recording with some odd function configured that’s affecting the image.
Finally, take time to configure any presets, menu favorites, or user buttons. Almost all the major digital cameras have these features. For example, the ARRI Alexa has custom lists, the Canon C-series have “My Menu,” and RED has a plethora of assignable user buttons. Customizing these in the right way can make accessing crucial menu items much quicker and make your life much easier on set. If the DP or camera op is at the prep, ask them what buttons they would like quick access to as well.
Memory Cards / Recording Media
After you’ve configured the camera’s settings, insert each memory card or record media you’ll be using into the camera or external recording device. Make sure the media formats and the camera starts and stops recording without any issues or dropped frames by recording a 10 – 15 second clip.
(It’s also a good idea to record test clips at any variable framerates, resolutions, or unique settings you expect to use during the shoot. Sometimes software bugs are specifically related to certain functions of a camera, so you want to make sure they don’t appear in these special use cases.)
Once you have a test clip, download the footage and make sure the files aren’t corrupted.
If you’re going to be doing the data wrangling yourself, make sure you have the correct software and codecs installed to playback footage from the camera. If not, use your Google-fu and download it. You don’t want to be on set without access to Internet and find out you need some plug-in to be able to show the cinematographer a shot from the last roll so they can match it for the next setup.
Other Things Worth Doing
Here is a quick list of other small things you might want to do during a prep when shooting digital (if something’s missing, please add it in the comments):
- Calibrate black balance/shading. Consult the manual about this process.
- Configure monitor output. Set framelines and whether meta-data is shown.
- Check cooling fan speed/noise. Also make sure any vents aren’t blocked by accessories.
- Check software version of camera. If you need to troubleshoot, it’s good to know.
More Camera Assisting Advice from David Elkins
As mentioned, Elkins is the author of The Camera Assistant’s Manual. The recently released 6th edition goes into much more detail on digital cinematography and is a great update to an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to establish themselves professionally as a camera assistant.
Elkins also has a companion website for the book with some awesome resources such as camera dept. forms, camera threading diagrams, and a big list of cinematography resources.
Thanks to David Elkins for letting me share the video with you and make sure to visit his site!